Ain’t I Clean Though? Quick Notes on Respectability Politics and Vanity

Last week, Code Switch ran an article about the origin of respectability politics. They didn’t find an exact answer (because there probably isn’t one), but I don’t want to focus on that. At the top of the article was a sample of directives/advice/commands that a respectability politician might offer:

Pull up your pants. Calm down. Get good grades. Stop the violence. Buy a gun. Fix your hair. Go to church. Have a normal name. Speak properly. Be polite. Put your hands up. Stop loitering. Go inside. Have a good job. Smile. Apologize. Don’t shout. Try harder. Own a home (in the right neighborhood). Lose weight. Be braver. Do better. Don’t move. Seriously. Stay. The heck. Put.

There’s a clear individualist bent to all of these mandates. This is DIY anti-racism, the self being the only thing that needs to change. There’s no point in reiterating how ridiculous and condescending it is to be told that beating structural racism is simply a matter of self-improvement, but I do think that it’s worth noting how deeply vain this list is.

Smile, pull up your pants, go to church, speak properly – all of these instructions can be flipped: be seen smiling, be seen with your pants up, be seen at church, be heard speaking “properly.” Respectability politics is heavily invested in perception, in surfaces.

It’s not surprising that a racial group that has [primarily] been visually marked would invest in perception. But what’s troubling is how naive this investment is. To strive for respectability is to submit your self-image, your self-worth, your self-importance, to the person looking at you, judging you, evaluating you, shaming you. To be respectable is to become a surface.

Respectability isn’t so much individualist as it is submissive, deferential.

I can see the appeal. There’s an inherent contingency in submission. Looks can change. Judges can break with precedent. Shame can become admiration. Maybe if we just look good enough, they’ll have to smile back.

But what if there’s no one looking back at you? Structural racism has always struck me as horrifyingly inhuman. One of the most memorable things about the Case for Reparations was that although Coates followed the Ross family, the outcomes for an entire generation of black people were largely the same. This really can’t be overstated. Despite the fact that black migrants from the South traveled north along different trajectories, settling in different cities, and interfacing with various government institutions – they largely all had similar outcomes. And this isn’t surprising. As Coates forcefully argues, absconding with black wealth was policy. In other words, what he gets at in that piece is that institutions are designed to eliminate contingency, to standardize outcomes.

So even if respectability politics did begin to acknowledge structural racism, to concede that there is a system, not a just a bigoted person or two exacting judgment and pulling triggers, it could still only submit, looking flawless in front of the obelisk instead of toppling it or finding away around it. I honestly can’t imagine a belief system that is more suited (pun intended) for late capitalism.

So, all that to say, maybe Riley Freeman should be the new poster child for respectability politics. I think he gets it.

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